It's a large van, a seven-seater. If you see it on the road, nothing about it would make you think that it is an unmarked vehicle belonging to the central government's Traffic Department (DGT). Well, maybe the registration plate, if you have sharp eyes, and the presence of two Guardia Civil officers - with sharper eyes than yours - in the front, although by the time you spot them you will already have overtaken it.
"My colleagues in Seprona [the Guardia Civil's nature protection unit] used to call me 'the lynx'," jokes José Miguel. There's a reason for that. Neither he nor his colleague Antonio miss a thing that goes on around them as they drive along the highways of Malaga province. Their mission is to detect serious traffic offences. SUR went with them for a day on patrol.
The unmarked van, one of the 15 that the DGT has been using for this purpose since early last month, is in Malaga temporarily. The officers from the Guardia Civil's Traffic section are issuing around 20 fines a day on average.
"We don't carry a speed camera so we can't measure how fast people are going. We focus on the most serious offences committed by drivers," says Antonio. The most common offence of all is using a mobile phone while driving.
From the van, the officers have a perfect view. It is 8.30am on a Wednesday morning and as a small Renault Twingo passes us on the Malaga bypass, Antonio can clearly see that the driver is talking on his phone. He tells José Miguel, who switches on the blue lights which are not normally noticeable on the van. This alerts the driver of the Renault, and the officers look for a safe place to pull him over: the Pedregalejo exit. Their colleagues on motorbikes, who are there to escort and support them, also stop to direct the traffic.
The young driver tries to deny it. "My mobile is in my bag," he says, and politely but very nervously tries to explain that he wasn't using it and offers to show them the list of phone calls made and received. "We can't get involved in that because, for a start, he might have been using a different mobile which he has hidden. I stopped him because I clearly saw him talking on a phone. We only issue fines if we are absolutely sure what we saw," José Miguel explains. He gives the driver some hand sanitiser after returning his driving licence to him. "We always do that. It's for their safety, and also for mine," he says.
"And how much is this fine going to be?" asks the driver, visibly angry.
Using a mobile phone while driving is considered a serious offence and it incurs a fine of 200 euros (with a 50 per cent discount if paid within 20 days) and the loss of three points on the driving licence. Despite this, and the number of vehicles and devices with 'hands free', more people than you might imagine still do it.
The van resumes its journey, and the officers intercept the driver of a brand new Maserati with a screen and satnav at the entrance to the Carlos Haya tunnel. He is steering with one hand and holding a phone to his ear with the other. He doesn't deny it. "I'm doing a long trip and it was a call from my work. The mobile didn't connect to the hands-free so I answered it," he says in explanation.
"I once caught an elderly woman holding a tablet to her ear while she was driving. She said she didn't have a phone so she had to use the tablet," says José Miguel.
"There are people who write WhatsApp messages or post on social media while they're driving. They don't seem to understand the danger," says Antonio.
During this campaign with the van in Malaga - the vehicles are used in different provinces of Andalucía at different times - the Guardia Civil officers have seen women putting their make-up on while driving down the motorway and even a girl who let go of the steering wheel altogether so she could roll a cigarette. "Those are exceptional cases, though," they say.
The risks the officers talk about are documented and the DGT is well aware of them. A four-second distraction, which is the time it takes to light a cigarette or look at a WhatsApp message, when driving at 100 kilometres an hour, means not looking at the road over a distance of about 113 metres. The danger of having an accident increases considerably.
The use of these vans is another way of reducing the accident rate. According to the DGT's statistics for 2019, driver distraction is the cause of at least one out of every four accidents, and the main cause of that distraction is a mobile phone.
"Using a phone at the wheel makes you four times more likely to have an accident and the risk is equal to that of drink-driving," say DGT sources.
The ESRA Project (a European survey about attitudes towards safety of road users, carried out in 2015) shows that those who were interviewed were aware that using a mobile phone has a negative effect on driving and increases the risk of having an accident.
However, even though the perception of risk is high, 38 per cent of drivers admit that they speak on or handle their phone while they are driving, and 27 per cent say they write and send messages. The DGT, which backs the data of the ESRA project, says the percentages are "particularly high" in drivers under the age of 34.
As our van is driving along in the right-hand lane, it is overtaken by an Audi. The 'lynx' immediately spots that the driver, a middle-aged man, is wearing an earpiece in his right ear. "Let's try and overtake him, and see if he has one in the other ear as well, and if he does we'll stop him," he says.
Antonio, who is driving now, accelerates as we ask what the rules are about wearing earpieces or headphones.
"Using one isn't a punishable offence, there is jurisprudence in that respect, because it is supposed that you will be able to hear with the other ear if, for example, someone sounds their horn. However, if you have both ears covered then you can't know what is going on around you," he says. And indeed, this driver was wearing them in both ears.
"If your car has hands-free, why didn't you use that?" the officers ask him.
"Well, yes it does. But I left home with the earpieces in and it didn't occur to me to take them off," he answers, head lowered, realising his error.
A grey Megane is driving along the MA-21. The driver is steering with his right hand. The window is down and his left arm is dangling outside. "Let's see if this is just for a moment or that's how he drives [normally]," says Antonio.
Many aren't aware that this is an offence nowadays, but it is. It incurs a fine of 80 euros (40 if paid promptly), but no loss of points.
In fact this particular driver does drive like that, or at least he did on this day. He even changed lanes, indicating first but steering with one hand and leaving the other arm hanging out of the window. "I was thinking about things, worrying about a family problem," he said, apologetically.
"People don't realise how dangerous this is. First, because they need both hands to drive, and second because people have lost an arm by driving like this," says Antonio.
And he isn't exaggerating. The last accident of this type occurred about a month ago on a road in the Guadalhorce area, when a driver lost an arm after his vehicle was hit by a lorry.